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An Appreciation

Colin Powell broke many barriers in the military and in civic life with dignity, respect and honesty

The former four-star Army general and secretary of state was trusted across the political spectrum

Colin Powell was the embodiment of Black power.

Born in Harlem, raised in the South Bronx and educated at the City University of New York, Powell rose to the pinnacle of the nation’s military and foreign policy establishment, a Black man atop the whitest precincts of the nation’s power structure.

Powell, who died from COVID-19 complications on Monday at age 84, was a loyal soldier, both during his long Army career and while advising four presidents. He was neither protester nor activist, but he was a racial pioneer who carried his Blackness lightly but proudly, and always was mindful of opening the way for others.

When journalist Juan Williams asked Powell, then-national security adviser, about the racial significance of a picture of him seated at lunch with President Ronald Reagan and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for a 1989 story, Powell basically played it off.

“Well, I had to eat lunch somewhere,” Powell joked, before adding: “To the extent that Black people look at that picture of power and they gain some inspiration from seeing a Black man at the table, I’m very happy about that.”

As it turned out, people of all races were inspired by Powell’s example. His up-by-his-bootstraps story, confident military bearing and plainspoken competence helped make him one of the nation’s most respected figures by the 1990s.

“He also refused to accept that race would limit his dreams, and through his steady and principled leadership, helped pave the way for so many who would follow.”

President Barack Obama

A political moderate who was a registered Republican before the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol led him to abandon the Grand Old Party, Powell was touted as a candidate for president or vice president by representatives of both parties, although he never took the plunge. He continued to enjoy the admiration of people across the ideological spectrum until his death.

“Though we disagreed on many issues, I always respected him and was proud of his achievements,” tweeted progressive activist and TV personality the Rev. Al Sharpton after learning of Powell’s death.

Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the nation’s lone Black Republican senator, also praised Powell. “Colin Powell will forever be remembered as a great public servant and American patriot,” Scott said in a statement. “He dedicated his life to this nation and broke countless barriers along the way.”

Powell was a four-star general in the Army, as well as the nation’s first Black national security adviser, first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and first Black secretary of state — achievements that he handled with the aplomb of a man who knew that he belonged.

Years ago, I interviewed Powell about his many successes and the lessons they held for Black people. He called himself an average student in high school, and a late bloomer in college. But he found his calling in the Army, where he encountered racism but also found purpose and opportunity. His talents, energy and sense of mission coupled with affirmative action allowed him not just to survive but to rise to the top.

“It doesn’t bother me if people say I made it with affirmative action,” Powell told me. “All that matters is what you do afterwards.”

Powell would often cite his own history to young Black folks who worry about the limitations others may place on them. Your achievements, he told them, need not be accompanied by apology.

“Of course you’re offended,” he said about people doubting you because of your race. But “you can choke with something in your craw. I’ve seen too many people grind themselves to death worrying about what other people say about them. Frankly, we don’t have time for that.”

President Barack Obama (center) signs America’s Promise Summit Declaration, which calls on all people “to help the youth of America reach their full potential,” at the White House on Sept. 22, 2014, in Washington. Also pictured are, from left to right: President and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance John Gomperts, chair of America’s Promise Alliance Alma Powell, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former Sen. Harris Wofford and Special Project Assistant to the president at Be the Change, Deon Jones.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama said he admired the way Powell, who endorsed both of Obama’s presidential runs, navigated racial issues. “He never denied the role that race played in his own life and in our society more broadly,” Obama said in a statement. “But he also refused to accept that race would limit his dreams, and through his steady and principled leadership, helped pave the way for so many who would follow.”

Unlike some powerful men, Powell would be the first to admit that he did not get some calls right. While serving as the nation’s top military official under President Bill Clinton, he opposed allowing people who were openly gay to serve in the military and helped hammer out the military’s former “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Years later, Powell said that was a mistake.

After 9/11, Powell was secretary of state when he was chosen by the Bush administration to make the case for an invasion of Iraq, despite his own misgivings. He spoke before the U.N. Security Council, where he presented purported evidence collected by the intelligence community that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Powell’s U.N. speech helped sway the U.S. Congress to approve the ill-fated Iraq invasion. Much of the evidence Powell presented was later discredited, and no such weapons were found in Iraq, opening him to harsh criticism.

Powell later said that his legacy was damaged by the speech. He called it a “blot” that “will always be a part of my record,” he told ABC News in 2005. “It was painful. It’s painful now.”

I saw Powell in 2001, two years before his U.N. speech. We were at a production of A Raisin in Sun at Baltimore Center Stage, which featured one of his daughters, Linda. During intermission, my wife and I watched from across the aisle as a stream of well-wishers — old, young, Black, white — greeted Powell, who sat confidently, sharing handshakes, quick stories and easy smiles. Everyone seemed impressed and proud that this powerful man was in their midst.

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.